Early Tuesday night, Delaney Jordan, a Maryland materials science and engineering major, U.S. Army Research Laboratory contractor, and generally humble and "hella smart" senior (her friends' words, of course), will briefly stop cramming for another exam to watch TV.
The test Wednesday morning is in a 400-level class called Introduction to Kinetics of Reactions in Materials. The course, according to the university catalog's description, examines the "thermodynamics of solid solutions, free energy and phase diagrams, thermodynamics of interfaces [and] concepts of kinetics." Essentially, Jordan explained, the study of state change — how equilibrium is disrupted, why a reaction takes place, what drives the rate of transformation. You know, basic stuff.
They are lessons that to another student might seem abstract, a matter of theoretical comprehension but not practical application. Jordan, however, already is familiar with the possibility of real-world change, and her study break that night will be proof. Along with Marcos Colon-Pappaterra and Kevin Merrick, friends and fellow engineering majors, she'll be tuned in to the debut of Esquire Network's "Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness," a five-episode series that offers proof of equilibrium disrupted, of rapid transformation.
In an episode shot this August and airing Dec. 13, Jordan, Colon-Pappaterra and Merrick will represent Maryland against Wisconsin in the obstacle course competition inspired by NBC's popular "American Ninja Warrior." The winner faces either Michigan or Ohio State in a relay race, with the fastest team advancing to the finals in the season finale.
"You don't need to conform to the image of a nerdy computer engineer who only sticks his nose in his computer," Jordan said, "and doesn't know what 'Ninja Warrior' is."
The Maryland trio cannot speak about how they fared in the competition until it hits the airwaves. How they got there, though, they were all too eager to share, as if acknowledging that the distance they'd covered would make their starting point more understandable, or at least easier to chuckle at.
Merrick, for instance, once weighed about 150 pounds as a student at Aberdeen. It was not a well-proportioned 150 pounds, spread, as it was, over a 6-foot-2 frame. "Imagine a skeleton that has a little bit of meat on it," he said. "That's really how I started out."
Then, sophomore year, Colon-Pappaterra transferred in. The New Jersey transplant had arrived in Harford County knowing almost no one and having almost nothing to do but imitate the parkour videos spreading fast across the internet. "Amazing stuff," Colon-Pappaterra recalled.
He started going to a parkour gym. He learned some gymnastics. Not long after meeting Merrick, he asked a question that had to be expected, given their burgeoning friendship: Hey, want to learn how to do a flip?
Conventional workouts had bored Merrick. Mainstream sports were likewise unaccommodating; he said he was one of two players cut from Aberdeen's junior varsity boys soccer team. But parkour, he said, was "always full-body, and it's new, it's fun." He became not only serious about the training discipline, but a "buffer skeleton," too.
When the friends arrived at Maryland two years ago, they joined Gymkana, a gymnastics troupe with high-flying acrobatic routines. Colon-Pappaterra eventually left to focus on his role on Maryland's cheerleading team, but the following year, Merrick met Jordan, a new group member.
She had competed in cross country and track at Glenelg but, until joining Gymkana, never had participated in gymnastics. Her upper-body and grip strength improved over time, and at Colon-Pappaterra and Merrick's urging, she began to accompany them on trips to Alternate Routes Gym in White Marsh.
It was not any "Ninja Warrior" skill she first had to master, she said, but rather her own fear. She had to find comfort in her new surroundings, like Merrick before her. "They taught me how to not be scared of the gym," Jordan said of her eventual teammates. "I was a little intimidated, as I think a lot of women are walking in."
In June, Colon-Pappaterra, Merrick and Jordan learned that "American Ninja Warrior," open only to contestants over age 21, was getting a college spin-off show. They applied separately, highlighting their own athletic bona fides — "Cliffhanger, Roulette Cylinder, Rumbling Dice, Quad Steps," Merrick said, a handful of show staples that test body and mind — and what they hoped would be their winning personalities.
Their entries had the mark of good engineering: Everything came together perfectly. In early August, they were told they would be on the show.
With just weeks before the competition, the trio continued to get smart and get big (or at least bigger). Merrick, a computer engineering and mathematics major, put on 20 pounds of muscle over the summer, topping out at 200. Jordan toned her physique and refined her technique. Colon-Pappaterra, a longtime "American Ninja Warrior" wannabe, considered everything he had learned as a mechanical engineering student.
The Warped Wall, he said, was particularly instructive. It's the final obstacle in many Ninja Warrior courses. It's also "like running up the side of a building and catching a window ledge on the second floor," Evan Dollard, a prominent American Ninja Warrior, said in 2013.
"A lot of people, when they're first trying to do the Warped Wall, they kind of run at it full speed ahead, just straight speed into it," Colon-Pappaterra said. "They end up running into the wall or not getting the height that they need."
When the course begins to change, curving from a short, flat track into a 180-degree nightmare, the contestant's body should change with it. That is what he had learned. After years spent working and bonding and growing, it was upward momentum that would propel Colon-Pappaterra, Merrick and Jordan past the wall and on to the next challenge.